Christianity as System of Pacification: Boarding Schools, Forced Assimilation, White Supremacy’s Pious Paternalism

The Indian reservations of the USA were never meant to be permanent.

In part, reservations were created because the US government was not sure what to do with the Natives of this land.

To wipe Natives out entirely was seen as too costly an endeavor.  As warped as the morals of America were, it was also seen as ethically unsound.  To make a place for Natives in American society seemed impossible.  The Native worldview and the European worldview were in opposition on too many issues.  Racism was also a cornerstone of the country.  Natives were seen as unintelligently inferior on the sheer basis of being different from white Europeans.  Christianity, and its marriage with European governments, informed the white supremacist policy of trying to recast Natives in a European image.

Yet the imperial system of destruction, subjugation and absorption broke down to an extent with many Native American tribes. Unable to be fully assimilated, despite numerous attempts by government and church authorities, they were left on the political prison of the reservation.

The Lakota in particular were a unique problem. After the defeat of Custer, so soon after the end of the Civil War, the US was weary of war and did not want a prolonged conflict with the seven Lakota bands. So the treaty of 1868 was forged which made the Great Sioux Reservation, covering much of the Dakotas. Eventually with the Dawes Act, the Great Sioux Reservation was fragmented into five smaller South Dakota reservations that exist today.

Christianity was used during this time as a step in a program of pacification. Reservations were always about control. In the beginning, authoritarian constraints on Native culture had the practical effect of quelling any military uprising among Native Americans.

In time, what was already taken was not enough. Empires are ever hungry, empires cannot stop feeding. The empire started to covet even the meager reduced land holdings that the Lakota had been allowed in the form of reservations.

The agenda of suppressing the mind and culture of Natives became the default policy as it helped America achieve the objects of its greed.

A broken, self-hating Native, unable to think for themselves, reduced to being the lowest of persons, could do nothing but say “yes, sir” to anything the dominant European society demanded. A Native who was strong, who loved their culture, who had an independent mind, would not be the deaf, dumb and blind follower who would assent to anything European society asked of him.

Christianity was what supplied Europeans with the hubris of their own superiority and right to conquest in the first place. So it was only natural that the Europeans would appoint Christianity as the force which was to mold Natives into the European image.

By the turn of the twentieth century, this system of cultural destruction had taken its toll. As one Catholic historian notes:

“By 1910, Catholicism had taken hold among the Sioux. Nearly half of the 25,000 Sioux in North and South Dakota were Catholics (…)” (Thiel, 1998).

One can see how much the Lakota have been subverted against their own culture, in some of the statements the historian includes.

“John Grass, a young sodality leader and reservation judge exclaimed, ‘It is now high time for us to give over old Dakota customs, for the missionaries have had trouble working with us for long enough’” (Thiel, 1998).

Such statements almost read like the cultural version of Stockholm Syndrome, where a person held in captivity and psychological duress eventually comes to identify with and love their captors.

Such statements are evidence of the power of the imperial method of cultural destruction. Traumatized by shows of military force and deprived of food, shelter and clothing, the Lakota were ripe for Christian manipulation. The Lakota were placed in the classic vice lock of attrition that empires use to crush a culture before absorbing the broken pieces.

Christianity was sent in to psychologically prepare the Lakota for absorption into the empire as it had with so many eaten cultures in the past.

Christianity was the propaganda wing of the US government in this regard. Christianity came to the Pine Ridge reservation to break the mind of the Lakota. Christianity came to make the Lakota hate themselves and their own culture. The evidence that Christian organizations promoted an ulterior agenda aside from mere religious formation can be seen in events like this:

“Commissioner Morgan’s circular on promoting patriotism was also cause for extensive sodality discussion that year. Morgan directed all agents to instill patriotism by encouraging celebration of independence day and other national holidays” (Thiel, 1998).

It was not just religion, but the ideals of industrial empire that the Catholic church was promoting on the reservation. The church was trying to dig out the entire worldview of the Lakota and replace it with a Christianity that encouraged submission to European ideals.

Christianity came to try to make Native people internalize all the dehumanized caricatures that European society had invented about the indigenous peoples of America.

The proof of this lies in the wedding of Christianity and the American government. Christianity was given land on reservations by the US government. On Pine Ridge reservation, the Catholic, Presbyterian, and Episcopal churches were brought in. The government sanctioned these churches because these churches were carrying out the European ideological agenda. Christianity’s end game was an enfeebled, infantilized people, so dependent on this foreign religion and culture that independent thought was no longer possible.

Part of this was planned, the other part was a mistake of hubris. How anyone thought enfeebling a culture, erasing the foundations of Native community, and trying to recast the Native into the European image was a formula for success is truly baffling. Yet this perspective was popular among the sociological engineers of the day.

To turn the Native into this mirror image, the Native identity had to first be nullified. Christianity played a major role in that nullifying of culture.  It was white supremacy, hidden in a trojan horse of religion.  Religious indoctrination tilled the soil for a gradual transplantation of European values into Lakota society.

The mission schools of this time were part of this strategy of cultural destruction. They were effective at breaking generational ties among the Lakota, alienating daughters and sons from their mothers, fathers, grandfathers, grandmothers, alienating the young from their culture. As one scholar notes:

“Schooling became the primary means of enticing young Native Americans to reject tradition and seek conversion. To missionaries, the abandonment of native ways for Western ones was a creative rather than a destructive process that made new Christian citizens out of savages” (Devens, 1994).

In other words, Christianity on the reservation was trying to fulfill something empires always do: break down foreign cultures and attempt to recast them in the imperial image. When we read of conditions like these, we should read with the motivations of empires in mind:

“Mission schools programs for girls were intended to indoctrinate them with the ideals of Christian womanhood — piety, domesticity, submissiveness and purity. By the missionaries Victorian standards, Native American women were careless, dirty, and unfamiliar with the concept of hard work. (…) The content of the curriculum bore no relationship to the intellectual, social or philosophical constructs in which the girls had been raised. Indeed the school’s underlying principle was that Anglo-American history, morality and health were inherently superior to and should replace those of their students cultures” (Devens, 1994).

Conversion to more than religion is sought. Religion, and especially the Christian religion, never remains a quarantined, abstract, Platonic ideal. A political dimension is always wedded to religious concerns. This becomes exponentially truer with Christianity on the reservation.

Essentially, what happened in the boarding schools was punishment of a dissenter. Yet the dissenter was not one lone counter cultural ideologue, with one distinguishable face. Rather, the dissenter was an entire culture. The dissenter was a chain of grandmothers and grandfathers, brothers and sisters, aunts and uncles. Much like the political prisoners of now, the dissenters to imperial society today, recantation of ideas was highly sought after.

Authoritarians always harbor a degree of narcissism. Often, the prime desire of an authoritarian power is not to kill whoever disagrees with them.

Rather, it is to make whoever disagrees with them admit the authoritarian is right.  It is to spread their narcissistic view of their own grandeur to others.  In this sense, Native American boarding schools almost resemble the Catholic inquisition. Through alienation from community, sexual and physical abuse, what was sought was a recantation of a culture.

A Native child forcibly estranged and made to denounce her culture is not terribly different from a witch hunt confession extracted through oppression. The ego of authoritarian ideology has to make both admit they are wrong.  Empires are a breeding ground for authoritarians, in the sense that empires do not usually desire annihilation of foes either, but merely submission, subjugation, and servitude.  Empires require an underclass, so that the heights of society can magnify their glory in comparison to the squalor below.

Christianity was the medium through which European empire was able to project itself into the mind of Native Americans.  More than psalms and proverbs were being peddled.  An entire world view of white supremacy was the real agenda behind the pious facade.  It was a major way Natives came to hate themselves, and view the dominating culture as superior, in a process of internalized oppression.